Gender Inequality: The Ongoing Debate

Why the equal treatment of men and women still seems far away

European Parliament

After three weeks ago the World Economic Forum published 2017’s Global Gender Gap Report, the ongoing debate about gender inequality erupted again. Apparently, the wage gap between men and women hasn’t even slightly closed and therefore action is still needed. Females earn less than males, even if they have the same qualifications, or sometimes even when they have similar jobs. Moreover, females are less well-represented in executive positions or government institutions and are less likely to receive a promotion than men. These are facts, and this is nothing that we didn’t know yet. However, besides the importance and relevance of this topic, I find it a rather difficult topic to address. This is mostly because sometimes feminism seems to be perceived as man-hating, and many people have the feeling that feminism is no longer needed nor desired. I must say that I have never experienced any of the disadvantages of being a woman in our society yet, but I can imagine that this is going to change once I start looking for a full-time job, or when I do not get promoted because I might be having children in a few years’ time. What is it that makes gender equality so difficult to discuss and why are we not yet where we want to be?

Why does the gap close so slowly?

First of all, the problem of gender inequality originates from centuries ago. It was only around the 1900s that women started to fight for equality and this has been an ongoing movement ever since. From the situation in which women were only allowed to take care of their families, the situation has improved a lot as women are given more opportunities than ever before, such as the right to vote, study, and work (I am aware of the fact that this is does not hold for all countries in the world). Considering the fact that the fight for equality has started relatively recently, huge progress has thus been made. That we are not yet where we want to be is partly the result of the fact that the status quo on which our modern society was built, is also the situation in which males are dominating in the managerial workforce. Although there are particular sectors such as nursery and pre-graduate education in which women are the dominating gender, it is mostly men running the big companies, banks, and governments. The process of such a big change is a rather slow one, and this partly explains why there is still a lot progress to be made.

However, it is not only due to the slow pace of change that this equalizing process is taking so long: Women have their own role in it as well. Several studies show that women are worse negotiators than their male colleagues. If males successfully negotiate their starting salaries and afterwards are more proactive in asking for a pay raise, the gender wage gap naturally increases over time. Some people therefore advocate against individual salary negotiations, as these negotiations have been proven to widen the gender gap. However, on the other hand one could also state that women should do their best to increase their negotiating skills. These two contradicting arguments are the exact representation of what makes the gender equality discussion so difficult: Is it the responsibility of society as a whole (and thus the government) or the responsibility of females themselves to make sure that both sexes are treated equally?

There is not a single answer to this question, and probably that is why there lately has been so little progress. As there are solutions at hand for solving the problem of inequality, every measure has its pros and cons. Let me give you a few examples:

1. Setting a quota for the number of women hired/in managerial positions

This measure is one of the most often proposed ‘solutions’ to the problem. The reasoning is pretty straight-forward: as hiring managers have the tendency to select applicants that remind them of themselves, the selection process ends up in a vicious circle. If a male-manager selects a male-applicant, this male-applicant will in turn select a team of other males as well and so on. This continues until the selection process is influenced by an external force, for example a quota. Of course there are always exceptions to this rule of selecting similar people, but it is suggested that this selecting behaviour leads to less diversity in management positions. If the best way to get women in managerial positions is to make it compulsory, it will take a few years before institutions become familiar with both men and women in managerial positions, after which it will slowly turn into the status quo.

What people could argue against this measure, is that these quotas would be a form of positive discrimination. The fear is that females would not be selected because of their qualifications, but because of their gender, and that appears to be a paradox. In order not to discriminate women, should we discriminate them in a positive way? What if there are only male candidates that appear to be fit for the particular job? Should you then still hire the second-best option, just because the best candidate is male?

If a female is not suited for the job, she should of course not be appointed. However, quotas are not meant to favour women, but to give them equal opportunities, as in practice many women despite their qualifications do not get into top positions.

2. Provision or subsidizing of paternity leave and childcare by the government

The reason that women are being discriminated in the first place is of course the fact that they can give birth. Maternity leave is inevitable, paternity leave is not necessary in the sense that fathers do not physically have to recover after a child is born. Or at least, it has been the case for a long time that fathers did not go on an extended leave for which the employer had to pay. This difference in leave of absence causes women to be less attractive to employers. As women can obviously not continue working if their child has just been born, a solution would thus be to let either the government pay for the maternity leave, or to provide the father with the same amount of absence (which is also good for the relationship between father and child). The same holds for childcare: It is rather old fashioned to have the mother staying home for the kids, but this still is the most common situation to occur. What if childcare were to be provided by the government or companies itself? In for example Scandinavia childcare is pretty accessible and that resulted in more women returning to work after having children.

However, is it the responsibility of the government to take of the children of their employees? Children are the joint responsibility of their parents and they should figure out who is going to work full-time or whether both of them will be working part-time jobs. Although this measure works in Scandinavia, the question is whether this kind of policy will work in other countries as well.

Socialism or Liberalism?

The entire discussion of gender inequality tends to become a bit more fundamental, as the solutions that are proposed all have to do with regulation. Apparently, the gender wage gap is still significant, which is due to the lacking female negotiation skills, but also just discrimination and males preferring males in certain positions. The biggest problem is that we as a society have to figure out what is more important: Our beliefs concerning socialism (gender inequality is a problem the government should take care of) and liberalism (women have to work harder in order to deserve the same treatment as men and it is their responsibility to come to an agreement with their partner on who is taking care of the kids), or see these measurements as an intervention in an inefficient labour market? It is up to you to decide, but I know for sure that I will work hard and try to negotiate the best I can in order to get that job and get that promotion. Even though I am a woman, or maybe just because of that.